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Somalian's contempt charges reinstated

2012-09-19 10:16

Minneapolis - A federal judge in Minnesota reinstated contempt charges Tuesday for a Somali woman who cited religious beliefs when she refused to stand for the court during the first two days of her high-profile terrorism trial last year.

Amina Farah Ali was convicted last fall of funnelling money to terror group al-Shabaab in Somalia, though she claimed she was raising money for charity. She is in a halfway house awaiting sentencing on 13 terror-related counts, including conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation.

During the first two days of her trial, she refused to stand 20 times when those in the courtroom were ordered to rise. Chief US District Judge Michael Davis found her in contempt each time and sentenced her to a total of 100 days.

But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 19 of Ali's contempt charges in June and sent the issue back to Davis to reconsider, saying he must determine whether his order to stand was the least restrictive way to keep order in the courtroom. The appeals court said Davis had to balance the need for order while avoiding placing "substantial burdens on sincere religious practices."

On Tuesday, Davis ruled that Ali was in contempt. He reinstated all the charges against her, but purged her 100-day sentence.

Davis said that because of the heightened publicity in the case — the courtroom was filled with spectators during most of the trial — the court took extra measures to ensure order.

Extra security officers were on hand throughout the trial, cellphones were ordered to be turned off, signs about courtroom rules were posted in the hall in English and Somali, and one room outside the courtroom was set aside for Muslims who wanted to pray.

Difficult position

He also said he reached out to elders and leaders of the Somali community and told them he would be insisting on order in his court. He said he believed those elders intervened when a group of men in the gallery chose not to stand at one point, and the issue was resolved.

Davis added that he spent a lot of time talking about Ali's religious beliefs, and pulled her aside so she and the attorneys could talk to him out of the public's earshot. He said when Ali changed her mind and chose to stand on the third day of her trial, it showed her beliefs could change.

Her attorney had argued that under Ali's interpretation of Islam, she felt she "should not rise for persons when she does not rise for the prophet". But she began standing after she was visited in jail by clerics who told her she could stand if she were in a difficult position.

Ali and her co-defendant, Hawo Hassan, were among 20 people charged in Minnesota's long-running federal investigations into recruiting and financing for al-Shabaab, which the US considers a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda.

Prosecutors said the two women went door-to-door in the name of charity and held religious teleconferences to solicit donations, which they then routed to the fighters. Defence attorneys painted the women as humanitarians giving money to orphans and poor people, as well as to a group they felt was working to push foreign troops out of Somalia.